The European troika (France, Germany, and the UK) was clearly taken by surprise last week by Iran’s determined drive to resume its uranium enrichment program. Their proposal, delivered to the impatient new leaders in Tehran in early August, was far from convincing, but they had expected more bargaining and not a straightforward rejection. Since the “carrot” was thrown out as irrelevant, they presumably had to prove the relevance of the “stick” — but failed again. The emergency meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) last Thursday produced only a timid “serious concern” resolution that contained no reference to a possible transfer of the issue to the UN Security Council to consider for sanctions (Kommersant, August 12). Russia’s position in this anti-climactic crisis has been quite ambiguous, and Moscow can now look forward to its continuation with anticipation rather than worry.
The desire to confirm its European credentials and the interest in continuing cooperation with Iran might appear to shape a difficult dilemma for Moscow, but in fact most of the tricky questions are being addressed by others. Maintaining close relations with key European leaders, particularly Gerhard Schroeder and Jacques Chirac, is certainly one of Vladimir Putin’s top personal priorities, and he can only express polite regret about their poor homework on the Iranian “dossier.” Back in February, he took great care to clear with his partners that the Russian contract on building the Bushehr nuclear power station did not undermine their negotiations and was fully covered by the IAEA safeguards. In the on-going complicated intrigues in Vienna among the members of the IAEA governing board, Russian envoy Grigory Berdennikov has made sure that the Bushehr issue is not on the table, while asserting that Moscow wholeheartedly supports the hopeless approach of the European troika (Vremya novostei, August 12).
The Russian Foreign Ministry duly issued a statement urging Iran to halt its uranium enrichment and continue negotiations (Rossiiskaya gazeta, Gazeta.ru, August 10). That, however, was a cheap gesture, since Moscow was quite sure that no consensus in the IAEA on “punishing” Iran would emerge and that, if the issue was indeed referred to the UN Security Council, China would block any possibility of sanctions (New York Times, August 12). Instead of agonizing over bad choices, Russia has an opportunity to hide behind the triangular contradictions among the United States, Europe, and China, while quietly continuing its own business and watching oil prices climb to a new record high every day (Vedomosti, August 11). This is a perfect crisis indeed for Putin, who as the acting chairman of the G-8, might even suggest special consultations in this format, which would grant him center stage but with little responsibility.
It might appear that Moscow is playing petty games over a problem with potentially global repercussions. Russian commentator Yulia Latynina pointed out that all the technical questions in the Bushehr project had been miraculously resolved when Atomstroiexport, the lead company in the contract, was sold by Kaha Bendukidze to Gazprombank, which has good connections in the Kremlin (Ekho Moskvy, June 12).
What makes such suggestions plausible is the real attitude of the Russian leadership, which, while issuing politically correct statements, remains fundamentally unconcerned about nuclear proliferation. This position is quite similar to the proclaimed commitment to reforms in the UN system, whereby Germany is promised full support in obtaining a permanent seat in the Security Council, while in reality there is a total reluctance to change anything in the old patterns (Gazeta.ru, August 11). Moscow sees no reason to be any more concerned about a nuclear Iran ten years from now than it is about the recent test of a long-range cruise missile by the already-nuclear Pakistan (Kommersant, Nezavisimaya gazeta, August 12). The 60th anniversary of Hiroshima was barely noticed in Russia, and the risks associated with nuclear weapons do not look prohibitively high when another short-circuit in the worn out domestic energy grid could trigger a chain of technological catastrophes. Indeed, seeking to increase the political usability of its still-impressive nuclear instruments, Russia might even find it useful if other states obtain small nuclear arsenals.
In the meantime, Putin can enjoy observing how Washington would try to cajole the European allies to take a more forceful stance, a task that will hardly become any easier three weeks from now when Mohammed Al-Baradei, the IAEA director general, is due to present a report on Iran’s compliance with standard rules and regulations. The fact of the matter, as many officials in Moscow, including Konstantin Kosachev, the head of the Duma committee on foreign relations, are pointing out, is that in removing the seals from its uranium facility in Isfahan, Iran has done nothing wrong (Itar-Tass, August 12).
The Bush administration has a difficult case to make regarding Iran’s nuclear program, and Putin might hope that building tensions bring new troubles for the already overstretched U.S. forces in Iraq. He has experienced so many setbacks in his second presidential term that he can only envy and possibly resent the efficiency of the British and U.S. rescue teams that saved not only the stranded submarine recently but, quite possibly, his presidency as well. He would much rather see somebody else, preferably the “partner” who cares so much about “democracy,” dragged down by Iran.